Construction industry unaware of modern slavery risks, survey finds

In the same week the UK marked Anti-Slavery Day (18 October), a survey has found that more than half of construction businesses would not know what action to take if modern slavery was encountered in their supply chain.

This week, the spotlight has turned on business action to eradicate risk of modern slavery and human trafficking. The survey by Supply Chain School – an initiative which represents a common approach to sustainability within supply chains that includes companies such as Carillion, Skanska and Willmott Dixon –  highlights the strengths and weaknesses of construction industry efforts to tackle the issue.

While 84% of respondents from a sample survey of the group’s 14,000 construction industry members agreed that the UK should take leadership on modern slavery and human trafficking, 51% conceded a lack of knowledge about necessary measures to take if the issue was met in their organisation.

The need for business to ramp up efforts was recognised by Interserve support services sustainable procurement manager and Supply Chain School member Dan Firth, who said: “To make a real difference, companies in the facilities management and construction supply chains will need to introduce changes to their recruitment processes and develop the capability of their staff to recognise modern slavery in workers brought onsite by subcontractors.

“They will also need to embed modern slavery prevention in their procurement processes. The work that the Supply Chain School SIG has done provides guidance on current best practice and how to go about this.”

Awareness into action

The survey found that around three in four respondents are aware of what the The Modern Slavery Act (MSA) 2015 covers, while 74% know how it affects their organisation.

Officially coming into force as of 29 October last year, the MSA requires businesses to publish an annual statement if they have an annual turnover above a threshold of £36 million. The statement must confirm the steps taken to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place in the business or declare that no steps to confirm the existence of slavery or trafficking have been taken.

In July, Theresa May announced additional measures to assist the Act’s implementation, including the creation of a task force to coordinate Government action, and a budget allocation of £33.5m.

The lead author of the Supply Chain School Guidance on modern slavery, Helen Carter, has urged the construction industry to follow the Government’s lead in helping to fight exploitation by being both “visible and vocal” on the matter.

“The MSA is now a year old and whilst organisations are aware of its contents there needs to be a strong and decisive step by all tiers of the supply chain to work together to turn awareness to action,” Carter said. “It will be challenging, but this is not a race – it is an ongoing imperative. Effective and long-lasting change has to happen to ensure we are making it near-impossible for slavery and forced labour to exist on our projects and in our materials and services.”

Business steps

The Anti-Slavery Commissioner recently suggested that the number of crimes being reported and investigated under the MSA was falling short of the real number of cases of human trafficking and modern slavery. However, it is estimated that about 12000 companies will be caught by the legislation.

In a blog written exclusively for edie by human right consultancy CLT envirolaw, the firm’s director Colleen Theron provided a list outlining 10 steps that companies should take to get a handle on modern slavery and human trafficking.

The Modern Slavery Act (MSA) was heralded as a first for Europe on its pre-Brexit introduction. In the wake of the Brexit vote, Theron commented that there is a danger that the UK might lose its influence on EU-wide law and policy on slavery.

George Ogleby

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